The hours of labour
Source Tom Walker
Date 05/01/29/23:07

A while ago Gene Coyle earlier quoted a paragraph from
Stephen Leacock's "The Unsolved Riddle of Social
Justice". Last night I came across a transcription of
the six paragraphs that follow. So here's all seven:

THE HOURS OF LABOUR are too long. The world has been
caught in the wheels of its own machinery which will
not stop. With each advance in invention and
mechanical power it works harder still. New and
feverish desires for luxuries replace each older want
as satisfied. The nerves of our industrial
civilization are worn thin with the rattle of its own
machinery. The industrial world is restless,
over-strained and quarrelsome. It seethes with furious
discontent, and looks about it eagerly for a fight. It
needs a rest. It should be sent, as nerve patients
are, to the seaside or the quiet of the hills. Failing
this, it should at least slacken the pace of its work
and shorten its working day.

And for this the thing needed is an altered public
opinion on the subject of work in relation to human
character and development. The nineteenth century
glorified work. The poet, sitting beneath a shady
tree, sang of its glories. The working man was incited
to contemplate the beauty of the night's rest that
followed on the exhaustion of the day. It was proved
to him that if his day was dull at least his sleep was
sound. The ideal of society was the cheery artisan and
the honest blacksmith, awake and singing with the lark
and busy all day long at the loom and the anvil, till
the grateful night soothed them into well-earned
slumber. This, they were told, was better than the
distracted sleep of princes.

The educated world repeated to itself these grotesque
fallacies till it lost sight of plain and simple
truths. Seven o'clock in the morning is too early for
any rational human being to be herded into a factory
at the call of a steam whistle. Ten hours a day of
mechanical task is too long: nine hours is too long:
eight hours is too long. I am not raising here the
question as to how and to what extent the eight hours
can be shortened, but only urging the primary need of
recognizing that a working day of eight hours is too
long for the full and proper development of human
capacity and for the rational enjoyment of life. There
is no need to quote here to the contrary the long and
sustained toil of the pioneer, the eager labour of the
student, unmindful of the silent hours, or the fierce
acquisitive activity of the money-maker that knows no
pause. Activities such as these differ with a whole
sky from the wage-work of the modern industrial
worker. The task in one case is done for its own sake.
It is life itself. The other is done only for the sake
of the wage it brings. It is, or should be, a mere
preliminary to living.

Let it be granted, of course, that a certain amount of
work is an absolute necessity for human character.
There is no more pathetic spectacle on our human stage
than the figure of poor puppy in his beach suit and
his tuxedo jacket seeking in vain to amuse himself for
ever. A leisure class no sooner arises than the
melancholy monotony of amusement forces it into mimic
work and make-believe activities. It dare not face the
empty day.

But when all is said about the horror of idleness the
broad fact remains that the hours of work are too
long. If we could in imagination disregard for a
moment all question of how the hours of work are to be
shortened and how production is to be maintained and
ask only what would be the ideal number of the daily
hours of compulsory work, for character's sake, few of
us would put them at more than four or five. Many of
us, as applied to ourselves, at least, would take a
chance on character at two.

The shortening of the general hours of work, then,
should be among the primary aims of social reform.
There need be no fear that with shortened hours of
labour the sum total of production would fall short of
human needs. This, as has been shown from beginning to
end of this essay, is out of the question. Human
desires would eat up the result of ten times the work
we now accomplish. Human needs would be satisfied with
a fraction of it. But the real difficulty in the
shortening of hours lies elsewhere. Here, as in the
parallel case of the minimum wage, the danger is that
the attempt to alter things too rapidly may dislocate
the industrial machine. We ought to attempt such a
shortening as will strain the machine to a breaking
point, but never break it. This can be done, as with
the minimum wage, partly by positive legislation and
partly collective action. Not much can be done at
once. But the process can be continuous. The short
hours achieved with acclamation to-day will later be
denounced as the long hours of to-morrow. The
essential point to grasp, however, is that society at
large has nothing to lose by the process. The
shortened hours become a part of the framework of
production. It adapts itself to it. Hitherto we have
been caught in the running of our own machine: it is
time that we altered the gearing of it.

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